You might have heard that Bungie is building a new universe. To build anything, you need tools. When the thing you’re building will live exclusively in a virtual space, the tools you end up using depend heavily upon a dark art known as “Math.” That’s why Engineers like this guy are really valuable to our construction site. Let’s visit his workbench and behold his mastery with crunching numbers…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
My name is David Johnson, though I’m occasionally referred to by the moniker DJ. I’m one of the several engineers working on the Content Tools team. That’s just fancy talk to say that I help build and construct all of the various internal tools our artists and designers use to edit and visualize game content before it gets sent through our fearsome world domination engine, whereupon it will become a physical component of our game. Whether it’s fiddling with file wizards, world editors, or custom Maya modules, chances are that my team has a small hand in getting everything in the game into your hands.
I’m gonna have to admit that a lot of that sounds like a foreign language to me. Before we try to understand the true nature of your work, let’s get better acquainted. How does a guy like you spend the time that he doesn’t devote to making tools for us?
Recently, I’ve been swept up in the wave of the new dawn of board games. There’s a group here who games during the lunch hour, and I pretty quickly sought them out! Of course, it’s no secret that I love video games as well. I’m a particular fan of RPGs and adventure games—pretty much anything that tells a good yarn. To those ends, I read a lot of fantasy, and I dabble here and there with writing stories of my own.
As the person tasked with writing a story all about you, I must ask what you were doing before you became one of my smarter coworkers. What’s on your resume below the description for what you do for Bungie?
Before I landed in the games industry, I was a contractor for the US Air Force for several years where I helped construct virtual worlds in which to test the effectiveness of military projects before they were physically constructed and sent out into the field. Through some luck or divine intervention, I was hired on at Zipper Interactive as a Tools Engineer, where I lovingly built and nourished our level editor and other internal tools for MAG, SOCOM 4, and Unit 13. And this experience has led me to Bungie.
It doesn’t sound like you’ve had a single job that wasn’t focused on building virtual spaces. Was this all part of the plan? You seem to have traveled a narrow path to where you are now.
Ever since I was a wee lad discovering the wonders of the Atari 2600, I’ve always had the dream to make video games. I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time though; I was only six! That dream caused me to create notebooks full of maps, drawings, and crazy ideas for game concepts during elementary school. In high school, I started designing and programming games for my friends on the TI-83 calculator. Despite my love for video games, Ohio was a scary land where no video game companies lived, so I temporarily settled into just being a run-of-the-mill computer scientist. That wasn’t nearly as fun as what I do now, let me tell you.
Before you escaped Ohio, did you go to school there to become the world-class mathlete that you are now?
After high school, I went to Wright State University (or as we liked to say, Wright State Wrong University) where I got two Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Science and Computational Mathematics. Since I was a glutton for punishment, I stuck around for two more years to get a CS Master’s as well. All of the math (even some of the weird, abstract, advanced stuff) and physics have really paid its dividends in so many weird and unexpected ways, and my CS courses have given me a large toolbox of techniques to draw upon. Even if there are pieces here and there that I don’t ever use, a lot of it is still good and certainly worthwhile and helped hone my problem-solving skills.
Scheduling a job interview with Bungie is one of the hardest problems to solve. What did you say to make us take you seriously?
I told them they needed to ask more math questions on their programming test! What can I say? Math is really my first love. But seriously, I think what really spoke leagues about me was that I had several years’ experience solving the same difficult questions that most game studios have to deal with. I think it also helped that I was really strong in problem solving and demonstrated some sweet C#-fu during my interview.
Contrary to some of the horror stories I’ve heard about the Bungie interview loop, you make the process sound easy. Was it? There had to have been something that stumped you, even if for just a moment.
As much as I would love to say that it was Charlie’s evil mindbender problems, I think the hardest bit about the interview was maintaining my composure and cool from 9AM all the way through the end of the work day. While I had a lot of fun during the interview (Oh wait, was I not supposed to admit that?), it was a long day and certainly no walk in the park. My interviewers ran me through the gauntlet over nine hours. With all that said, it certainly was worth every minute to get here.
Tell us more about your reward for surviving that gauntlet. What is the most rewarding thing about the work that you do for Bungie?
There’s absolutely nothing better than getting to see someone in the studio using the features I developed to create something awesome. It gives me a secondhand feeling of awesome.
Aside from the work, do you find some reward in the workplace? What’s your favorite perk available to the people who work in our studio?
You mean, outside of learning from and fraternizing with some of the best folk this side of the Mississippi? Do I have to choose just one?
I might not know a lot about math, but I’m competent enough with language to verify that the word “favorite” does in fact lead you to just one thing. You must choose, DJ, but choose wisely.
I honestly don’t think I can; Bungie does so much to make us feel at home. I remember getting here on Day One to find this gargantuan box sitting on my desk with a big “Welcome” written on it, just waiting to be opened. We’ve been given free movies, tickets to sporting events, and bottomless stockpiles of food and drink. Maybe that’s it really: the never-ending message of: “Welcome to Bungie. We’re glad you’re here with us.”
It’s the truth. Without mathematicians like you, I would have nothing to write about – and we would have no tools at our disposal. Now that we’re making your story public, what would you say is the most newsworthy thing you have done since your arrival?
I think that would have to be the first foray I’ve ever taken into the code for our world editor. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s not the only hammer in our content creators’ toolbox. They use 3DS Max and Maya quite a bit. Wouldn’t it be great, I was told, if someone could actually see more or less what our levels looked like in those tools? Rather than taking crazy guesses as to where the ground actually was? I was assured that, if I could get that done, I would make many people really happy.
Little did I know. About the moment I had the task in a workable state (though by no means completely finished), I had several people swarming my desk asking for demonstrations and if I could actually get them some data right now if I would be so very kind. That was the moment I knew I had made a solid contribution here.
I always like to ask how people can get better at what they do in working for Bungie, but you’ve already admitted to tackling new frontiers. Is that just part of the life of an engineer?
The best thing about working on internal tools is that, quite literally, you have no idea what exactly you’ll be working on next month. We become jack-of-all-trades and red mages, dabbling a little in AI, graphics, user interface, data compilation, the whole works. So work challenges me quite a bit in and of itself. Outside of these majestic walls, however, I dabble a lot with web programming, which has always been a particular hobby of mine. I also tinker with the occasional project or new technology I discover, and for a time I was really into solving the problems at Project Euler.
Count for us the factors that add up to complete one day in your life as a Bungie Engineer.
After a grueling walk up the flights of stairs, I am sometimes met with bagels or donuts pristinely laid out upon our kitchen table, cheerfully bidding me a wonderful morning. Following that, I get out my trusty programmer’s pickaxe and start mining for the raw code ore that drives the gears and furnaces of our tools. This process is interrupted by our morning standup (whereby producers demand updates to know whether or not our code or quotas are being maintained), lunch (a fun ritual usually involving gaming against coworkers for supremacy and bragging rights), and the general bestowment of TLC for our artists and designers, ravenous for the Next Big Thing™ to come out of the Tools pod.
A workday like that might appeal to a lot of people who aren’t scared of math. Can you share with them your equation for success?
I’d love to say that I know the secret, inside track on how to find your way into the video game industry, but I still feel like I was incredibly lucky to break in. I can’t give any direct advice on how to get there, but I can say that it’s definitely in your best interest to dream big and to never stop challenging yourself to go the extra mile. Even if you’re not always met with success, you always learn something in the process, and people will see the passion that drives your life and want you to be a part of their visions.
Thanks for sharing with us your words of inspiration. I have a final problem for you to solve: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
I believe Work Ethic is the most important of the three. You can be talented or have lots of experience in a certain field, but without the drive or passion to actually hunker down and actually execute that vision, ultimately nothing ever gets done, and your talent or experience is wasted. After that, the other two are fairly coequal, and I think any team worth its salt needs a little bit of both, experience to know how problems have traditionally been solved while talent allows for new insights on how to solve them.
David’s insights on breaking into this industry represent only one avenue. Getting a job making games is a problem with many solutions. It this one sounds like it might not be for you, there is no reason to assume that you don’t belong making games. Our Breaking In
archive is a good roadmap for people will all kinds of skills.